Archive for April, 2011

Wellness – the New Corporate Responsibility

At one time, employer sponsored wellness programs were simply a nice to have. A little extra benefit tossed in with any health benefits. Want to quit smoking? Lose a couple pounds? Read this pamphlet. Done. There’s your wellness plan.

We’ve come a long way.

Wellness, and getting employees engaged in their health, is now pegged as the solution to controlling the unhealthy behaviors that drive unsustainable health care costs. Wellness has gone high-touch and high-tech with the expectation for a meaningful return on investment. From an employer’s perspective, it’s gone from an infrequently used fringe benefit to companies winning corporate and social responsibility awards for offering health management programs, on-site fitness facilities and wellness coaching. There are obvious benefits to employee relations, but at the root is the catalyst to improve the status of a population slowly becoming less productive, more susceptible to chronic disease and more and more expensive to employ.

For employees, wellness brings a new accountability. Your engagement in your health is now not only about your health, but the health of your company’s bottom line. Anyone close to this industry has read about companies using ultimatum-like tactics to try and force healthy behaviors, but that kind of pressure isn’t what drives sustained engagement in health (or happy employees). This is where so many wellness programs falter. Health is personal.  Improving it requires motivation inspired from within. Your boss should support you, empower you with the proper tools and reward you, but not force you to hit the gym or eat a salad. We need to avoid “should” and “need” and move to “want” and “can” through a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations that provide personal rewards and embrace a culture of health.

Wouldn’t that be a nice to have?

Time for a New Mirror

Remember the Billy Crystal line – it’s better to look good than to feel good?  The majority of Americans are currently ascribing to a variation of the same Fernando Lamas-inspired logic – it’s better to believe you are healthy than to be healthy.

How skewed is perception from reality?  In a word – skewed.

According to a newly released CDC report, 90% of Americans rate their health as good to excellent – a self measurement indicator in direct conflict with record rates of obesity (28.2%) and diabetes (8.4%).  Columbia University Medical Center just released comprehensive research finding overweight and obese people routinely underestimate their actual weight and related health risks.  According to the research (focused on obese parents and their children):

  • 82% of obese mothers and 43% of overweight mothers underestimate their weight
  • 86% of overweight or obese children underestimate their weight
  • 48% of mothers of obese or overweight children indicate their children’s weight is normal

The good news is perception is less distorted when it comes to individual responsibility – 93% of adults believe they are individually responsible for their health (according to a statewide Pennsylvania poll.)  The issue, though, is action.  The same poll finds 33% of these same adults do not exercise and 39% exercise less than an hour a week.  In short – individuals know they are responsible for their own health…but few are motivated to take action.

If it isn’t already obvious, most individuals need a healthy dose of reality.  They lack baseline health and risk data – the type of individually relevant information they can easily receive by participating in a well promoted health assessment and biometric screening.

And then – motivation.  The first hurdle, getting individuals to accept responsibility for their own health is largely already cleared.  But they obviously need a nudge past it – influential incentives, engaging consumer experience and personalized, supportive coaching options have proven highly effective in moving the perception of health to reality.

Health and Wellness – it’s for the Dogs!

Staying fit and healthy can seem a daunting mission.  Made even more remote behind a myriad of excuses – lack of time or access to the right resources or the finances or the immediate peer support…and on and on.  Often, though, the path to improved health is closer to an arm’s length away than a marathon distance.  Take physical fitness.  Those intimidated by fitness club memberships and cardio workouts might be surprised to learn the most effective personal trainer may already be within their own home – sleeping on the sofa or chasing squirrels up the bird feeder. 

Recent studies indicate dog walkers are more active than their dog-less counterparts.   Michigan State University just announced 60% of dog owners who join their four-legged companions on regular walks meet federal criteria for moderate or vigorous exercise through this activity alone.  Having a canine exercise partner, it turns out, is more valuable than a human one – a University of Missouri study proving older adults are more likely to walk regularly when their walking partners are dogs.  And dogs aren’t only helping their owners log more minutes of exercise – they also are helping increase activity intensity – spurring walking speeds 25% higher than dog-less walks.

Aside from more fresh air (and happier household pooches) are there tangible benefits to dog-based exercise?  It appears so.  Exercise and preventive care researchers are finding those who regularly walk their dogs have one-third the risk of diabetes, lower rates of depression and high blood pressure and improved prognosis in battling chronic diseases.  Those are some tail wagging worthy advantages.

Aside from validating the unofficial moniker of “man’s best friend,” what’s the point of these findings?  We believe they validate two important elements of effective health improvement – simplicity and accountability.  The reason people are less intimidated by walking their dog over other exercise is it seems less intimidating (but doing it regularly can be considerably effective.)  And the reason many individuals are more consistent with their dog walking than they are with exercise with friends or family is there’s an immediate exercise-based accountability dog owners feel with their pets.  The dog needs to be walked…the neighbor, they can walk on their own.

The lesson for employers hoping to get employees engaged in their health?  Make getting healthy seem relatively easy within a structure effectively emboldening individual accountability.  Because healthy results are better than endlessly chasing your tail.

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